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Midseason manager changes a deceptive gamble in Premier League

To start what is now an annual rite of passage as the money associated with Premier League membership has exploded, two struggling clubs recently fired their managers in the hope of turning around seasons that are arrowing toward relegation.

On Dec. 27, Crystal Palace did away with manager Neil Warnock, who had only taken over at the club right at the beginning of this campaign after management and former manager Tony Pulis couldn’t agree on budget/control for transfers. Two days later, it was Alan Irvine, also a first-year manager, who got the axe at West Brom.

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Not surprisingly, Palace is currently sitting in 18th place – the first of three teams in the dreaded drop zone – while West Brom is one point and one place above that, clinging tenuously to safety.

While you can explain away both of these situations in a vacuum – Warnock being a panic hire after the unexpected departure of Pulis, while Irvine always looked underexperienced for this role, especially with a roster bereft of talent – the overall thought of canning a manager in order to avoid relegation seems fairly misguided.

In their book The Numbers Game, co-authors Chris Anderson and David Sally were the latest to explore the phenomenon of a “new manager bounce,” and they – like others before them – basically found no statistical significance to the managerial change when it came to a team’s subsequent performance. Any short-term gains (in the first five matches after the change) were a product of regression to the mean, often with a lighter schedule helping a team perform closer to its true longer-term level.

That hasn’t stopped a good number of clubs from trying to change their fortunes midstream, though, and with so much money at stake and it being so difficult to get back up from the Championship if you do get relegated, it’s hard to blame them. That said, recent evidence backs the research conclusions.

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In the past three Premier League seasons, there have been 13 clubs that were in reasonable danger of relegation when they decided to make a managerial change (Fulham actually did so twice last season). Of those 13, six ended up being relegated anyway, and only one club –  last year’s Crystal Palace – really showed significant performance improvement, although Sunderland’s stretch run last season was very impressive.

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Most of the survivors really were more beneficiaries of other clubs being worse than they were than any real salvage job having been done on their own. Last season, four strugglers survived after making a change, principally because only three teams can go down at once.

Team

Fired Manager (Month)

New Manager

Result

Sunderland

Paolo Di Canio (September)

Gus Poyet

An unexpected late surge took them from last place to safety.

Crystal Palace

Ian Holloway (October)

Tony Pulis

Went from last place when Holloway was fired to very safe, as Pulis had Palace playing at European qualifier form.

Fulham

Martin Jol (December)

Rene Meulensteen

The Cottagers looked better, but results didn’t really improve, and Meulensteen was then fired.

West Brom

Steve Clarke (December)

Pepe Mel

They scraped their way to safety thanks to a huge number of draws, and then Mel left.

Cardiff City

Malky Mackay (December)

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Form never really improved and they were relegated.

Swansea City

Michael Laudrup (January)

Garry Monk

They stayed above the muck, which was the only consolation for a disappointing season.

Fulham

Rene Meulensteen (January)

Felix Magath

A panicky move to an established “fireman” didn’t pay off, and the Cottagers were relegated.

Norwich City

Chris Hughton (April)

Neil Adams

Hughton was fired with five matches remaining, but Adams only earned one point from the final five matches and the Canaries were relegated.

Team

Fired Manager (Month)

New Manager

Result

QPR

Mark Hughes (September)

Harry Redknapp

Hughes was canned with just four points from 11 matches. Redknapp didn’t do a ton better and QPR was relegated.

Reading

Brian McDermott (March)

Nigel Adkins

Reading was tied for last at the time of the firing and went on to get relegated.

Sunderland

Martin O'Neill (March)

Paolo Di Canio

The eccentric Di Canio kept the Black Cats in the Premier League … before getting fired early the next season.

Team

Fired Manager (Month)

New Manager

Result

Sunderland

Steve Bruce (November)

Martin O'Neill

The Black Cats were two points above the drop when Bruce was fired, and finished in 13th place.

QPR

Neil Warnock (January)

Mark Hughes

Hughes took over when the club was a point above the relegation zone, and QPR survived relegation on the final day of the season thanks to results elsewhere.

Wolverhampton

Mick McCarthy (February)

Terry Connor

Wolves were in the bottom three when they changed managers, and Connor couldn’t salvage anything. They were relegated.

So what should we expect the rest of the way from the Baggies (who I tabbed for relegation prior to the season) and Palace (which I very well might have had I picked after Pulis resigned)? Both cases should be interesting to follow since West Brom actually hired Pulis, while Palace brought in Alan Pardew, who is a better manager than given credit for at Newcastle. You certainly can argue that both clubs upgraded their leadership, but they still have their work cut out for them.

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Through 20 games (according to the accumulated stats at SB Nation’s Cartilage Free Captain), WBA and Palace have two of the least threatening offenses in the league. They rank 1-2 in fewest danger zone shots attempted this season. Palace also is the worst team in the league in Danger Zone Shot ratio (the proportion of your most dangerous shots attempted vs. your cumulative opponents’ chances); WBA is fourth.

Palace is also currently second-worst in terms of expected goals scored, while the Baggies are a bit better at sixth-worst. Overall, both teams’ expected goal ratios adjusted for schedule place them very squarely in the relegation mix.

The good news is these moves were made in advance of the January transfer window, so both new managers will have a chance to shop for reinforcements. The bad news is both new managers have a sketchy history in the transfer market between misfires and overpaying for players, and with owners desperate enough to make a midseason move, they may have the ability to make moves that will actually end up being harmful in the longer run.

That’s the risk clubs are willing to take these days, though. The massive TV money (and prestige) associated with being in the world’s most lucrative league is too tempting a siren to ignore. What is being ignored, though, is the data that suggests that making a move like this really doesn’t help at all. We’ll see what happens at West Brom and Palace, and given the large number of strugglers again this season, don’t expect those two clubs to be the last ones to take this deceptive roll of the dice.